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Itchy eyes and a runny nose? It could be climate change

[Oct 5, 2022: Michelle Edelstein, Rutgers University]

Airborne allergenic pollen, emitted from trees, weeds and grasses, is a major trigger of Allergic Airway Disease. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Researchers with the Rutgers Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute have simulated how climate change will affect the distribution of two leading allergens – oak and ragweed pollens – across the contiguous United States. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Allergy, may make your eyes water.

Airborne allergenic pollen, emitted from trees, weeds and grasses, is a major trigger of Allergic Airway Disease (AAD), affecting 5% to 30% of the population in industrialized countries.


It has been estimated that pollen-related asthma emergency department visits across the contiguous United States (CONUS) will increase by 14% in 2090 under a high greenhouse gas emission scenario. Synergism of allergenic pollen with air pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter has been reported and can exacerbate the AAD of allergy sufferers. Pollen exposure also enhances susceptibility to respiratory viral infections, including SARS-CoV-2.

Using computer models, the team, led by Panos Georgopoulos, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and Justice at the Rutgers School of Public Health, found that by 2050 climate change significantly will increase airborne pollen loads, with some of the largest surges occurring in areas where pollen is historically uncommon.


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“Pollen is an excellent sentinel for the impacts of climate change because shifts in variables like carbon dioxide and temperature affect the way plants behave,” said Georgopoulos, who also is director of the Computational Chemodynamics Laboratory at Rutgers and faculty at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “At the same time, the production of pollen and pollen’s influence on allergic disease has been increasing due to climate change, and this is one of few studies to forecast this trend into the future.”

Previous efforts to connect pollen indices with climate change have been limited by a scarcity of data. For instance, there are about 80 pollen sampling stations in the U.S., operated by a variety of private and public agencies using different sampling methods.


To overcome this challenge, the researchers adapted the Community Multiscale Air Quality modeling system, an open-source tool managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to simulate distributions of allergenic oak and ragweed pollen for historical (2004) and future (2047) conditions.

Distribution of the 58 studied pollen stations across the nine climate regions in the contiguous United States. (CREDIT: Frontiers in Allergy)

Results showed that even under moderate warming conditions, pollen season will start earlier and last longer throughout the U.S., with increasing average pollen concentrations in most parts of the nation. Mean concentrations of oak pollen could climb by more than 40 percent in the Northeast and Southwest and mean concentrations of ragweed could jump by more than 20 percent in these areas.


Regional pollen shifts were observed, too. In parts of Nevada and northern Texas, oak pollen levels could double by mid-century, while Massachusetts and Virginia could see an 80 percent increase in ragweed pollen by 2050.

Time slices of spatiotemporal concentration profiles of (A) oak pollen at 11:00 UTC (averaged over Apr 21–Apr 30, 2004). (CREDIT: Frontiers in Allergy)

The pollen research was part of an ongoing project by the Rutgers Ozone Research Center, which is funded by the EPA and New Jersey to study how climate change will influence air quality in the state. The bulk of that work examines the state’s struggles with ground level ozone, a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion that can damage the lungs.


“New Jersey’s air quality is going to be adversely impacted by climate change, both in terms of anthropogenic pollution and increased levels of pollen,” Georgopoulos said. “For people with asthma, exposure to pollen and irritants like ozone increases the odds of respiratory illness. To protect the most vulnerable, we need to understand how these irritants will behave in a warming world.”

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by the Rutgers University. Content may be edited for style and length.


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